To take the plunge, or not?

| 30 Sep 2011 | 09:46

Home-based business owners say they love being their own boss, By Donna Puizina How many people can say they love what they do? How many have always wanted to be their own boss? With the unemployment rate in the United States at 9.1 percent last month, most people who are employed are glad just to have a job. Popular wisdom says, as the economy continues to struggle, this is not the time to take on additional risks. Yet, some people do take the plunge and run successful home-based businesses. And some who have been in business for several years continue to remain profitable. Amy C. Steele is the president of ISBOG of Sussex County — Informal Small Business Owners Group — a free organization that holds monthly meetings in Sussex, Augusta and Sparta. “Over the past two years, ISBOG has seen a wide variety of new businesses joining us,” said Steele. “These business owners all have the same major objective — to make money. However, the range of that goal varies from supplementing the family income to providing for the sole support of their family due to loss of prior employment.” New career after retirement John and Arlene Little of Stockholm are examples of a home-based business success story. John had been employed in the pathology department at Schering-Plough for 17 years, but took an early retirement in 2004. Not one to sit around, Little, 62, thought he’d have more time to pursue his outdoor interests — he’s an avid skier, cyclist and fisherman — but instead he and Arlene started their own venutre. They call it Treasures of the Vine ( They recycle old wine and liquor bottles to make cheeseboards. To get started, they contacted restaurants, bars and recycling centers to obtain bottles. They also purchased a kiln for melting the bottles. Before the bottles are placed in the kiln, Little carefully soaks off the labels so he can place them back on after the bottles are melted. Each cheeseboard has a hook, so they can be hung on the wall when they aren’t in use. They also come with a cheese knife. The Littles travel to craft fairs throughout the country to sell their product, a perk they thoroughly enjoy. “We’ve had a lot of fun checking out different places,” says Little. So much fun that last year they purchased a condo in Colorado that is centrally located to many of the big craft fair shows they attend. In addition to craft shows, they also wholesale to boutiques all over the country. They have arrangements with vineyards in California and get shipments of empty bottles from wine tastings. The Littles make cheeseboards from them and ship them back so the vineyards can sell them in their gift shops. A growing part of their business is customized cheeseboards; customers send the Littles their own bottles from a special occasion such as a wedding or anniversary to be turned into a useful keepsake. Word has gotten out about this specialized aspect of the business: One client contacted them from Kazakhstan and sent vodka bottles to be melted down. After a lifetime of working for others, John Little has found he loves working for himself. Working a traditional craft Traveling to craft fairs is not the only option an artisan has in order to sell his product. Bill “Hawk” Connelly, 58, of Vernon and his fiancée, Beverly Spoer, 54, have discovered a great selling venue through Etsy, an e-commerce Web site to buy and sell handmade or vintage items, art and supplies. Connelly has been employed in the emergency services field for 34 years. He began making leather wristbands in 1970 after he returned home from an overseas stint with the Marine Corps. Eventually he began making other thing — belts, guitar straps, bracelets, bootstraps, journals and more complicated items like wallets and handbags. Over the years, the requests for his work increased and it just made sense to turn his leather working hobby into a working business, which he named Hawk Leather. ( Although he does show and sell his work at a few juried craft shows — the ones in which exhibiting crafstpeople are selected by a panel of judges — Connelly says a large percentage of his sales come from He likes the fact that Etsy is a venue for hand-made goods. “We don’t want to be mixed in with 'cookie cutter’ or corporate-machine-mass-produced products,” he says. Connelly prides himself on using traditional leather-working techniques. “There aren’t too many of us true leather artists out there,” he says. The whole process starts with the side of a cow, which he purchases already tanned. He then hand-dyes and treats it. The leather is then ready for designing, carving and stamping. Spoer is the creative spark of the team and Connelly handles the mechanical end, putting it all together. Connelly says he can custom design anything. Once, rising country music star Bart Crow contacted Connelly, asking him to create a guitar strap designed just like his tattoo. That led to more work for country singers, who wanted to use his leather goods in photo shoots. Connelly says an Internet presence is a must for ssmall business owners. Through his Internet exposure, Connelly has been noticed and invited to juried events and he’s had custom requests and sales in more than 10 countries. Despite his great success on the Internet, Connelly also feels “there is something to be said for store exposure” and he sees a storefront in his company’s future whether it is in New Jersey or in South Carolina, where the couple eventually plans to relocate. Following her passion After retiring in 2003 as a high school business teacher, Phyllis Deanna Pfeifer followed her passion. The jewelry maker from Vernon now had the time to create, and urged by her friends, she started her own business. She had always made a lot of her own jewelry, but with more time at her disposal, she began buying supplies in bulk. She also acquired a large lot of natural stones at an estate sale, including black jade, turquose and jasper. Pfeifer named her business The Jeweled Pussycat (, inspired by her cat. While her bejeweled cat logo is a conversation piece that frequently draws shoppers to her tent at shows, she is quick to point out that she does not make cat jewelry. Although she is self-taught, Pfeiffer takes classes from time to time to learn new techniques. She does a lot of chainmaille, often called jump ring jewelry, as it’s made of small metal rings linked together in a mesh pattern. She works with different metals but finds that vermeil (sterling silver that has been electroplated with gold, usually 18 or 22k) is very much in vogue now and is more affordable than gold. A look at her Web site reveals an array of bracelets, earrings and necklaces made with several dozen types of gemstones but Web sales represent only a small percentage of her sales. She thinks that is because jewelry is something that people want to touch and feel. She sells one-of-a-kind items at craft fairs, such as Peters Valley Craft Fair, Chester Arts and Crafts Show and the Morristown Fine Arts and Crafts Show. Pfeifer says she loves the interaction with the public. Pfeifer describes selling her jewelry at craft shows a “luxury after working 33 years and being retired.” She now has the ability to choose when she wants to work and where she wants to go. “I’ll stop when it stops being fun,” she says. Sweet business While the others have been running successful home businesses for several years, Kristin Conforth is just getting started. A mother of two, 30-year-old Conforth of Lafayette has always been that class mom who enjoyed sending in cupcakes and other baked goods. While the children delighted in eating her over-the-top creations, Conforth loved seeing their faces light up. Eventually friends began asking if she made cakes for special occasions and that’s how Sweet Cake Designs ( was born. Conforth had been baking out of her home kitchen but to take her craft to the next level, she rented a commercial kitchen. Last January, she found one in Vernon and now she devotes part-time hours to her business. But once her 4-year-old daughter is enrolled in school on a full-time basis, Conforth can put in more time. Everything Conforth makes is made from scratch and creatively decorated. She is always willing to make a cake to order. “Every cake is unique to the customer,” she says. One of her most recent creations was for a bridal shower. She baked a red velvet cake that looked like a shoe box and fashioned a high heel shoe on top. The customer also requested a smaller-sized shoe box cake with a little girl’s Mary Jane shoe on top. Conforth also creates “sweet treats” including edible party favors such as cake bites, cake pops, cookies and lollipops. With young children to care for, she especially enjoys the flexibility of being her own boss. This young entrepreneur doesn’t feel her new business is like work. She even calls it a “stress reliever.”

Who would ever have thought that people from all over the world would be requesting Hawk Leather items from Vernon, New Jersey?” Bill Connelly on the value of marketing a home-based business online

Advice column
“Whatever you put into it, you get out of it,” John Little “Take advantage of the Internet to get exposure and to market yourself online,” Bill Connelly

Find out more
ISBOG of Sussex County, Amy Steele: 973-875-8886